Over the past nights we have been trying to discover more of who Jesus is – the lamb of God, the king of the Jews, the great high priest. Each of those titles paints part of a picture for us, it reveals more of who Jesus is and why Jesus came down to earth, but even taken together they are only a beginning. Today, tomorrow and Saturday are the culmination, when we see the heart of God revealed in three stages. Tonight to the disciples in the upper room, an immensely private moment of revelation. Tomorrow, on the cross, revealed to the world, to Jew and Gentile, Roman and Israelite alike. Then Saturday at the tomb, revealed to Mary Magdalene, and the beginning of the unfolding of that revelation to the world.
Sunday week ago we read from chapter 12 of John, the Greeks coming to Philip and saying, “Sir, we want to see Jesus.” Here in the Upper Room is where we truly see Jesus, we see the heart of God stripped bare, we see what it means to be God, we see the love of God explained and unfolded, we see the true nature of God made plain before our eyes. We have journeyed from the wilderness through the years of teaching and miracles, and each of them has pointed us to this moment. Everything Jesus has said and taught, every miracle he has performed, suddenly finds its fulfilment in the upper room.
John sets the scene brilliantly in the first verse. Three simple brushstrokes which tell us all we need to know.
Firstly it is Passover. When John mentions a Jewish festival, he wants us to take its meaning and apply it to Jesus. We’ve done that in great detail on Monday night. The Lamb who offers himself to atone for the sin of the world.
Second, his time had come. Not simply to die, not simply to be a sacrifice of atonement, but crucially to leave the world and go to their Father. And equally crucially, he didn’t die and go straight to the Father. He went through death, broke its bonds, was resurrected to new life and revealed to his disciples before ascending to glory. It is an unexpected sequence of events into which the foot washing and the crucifixion fit as part of the ladder from this world to the Father’s world. They are the words the eternal Word must speak. They are the way home the Son must take.
Third, and most important, this is the act of supreme love. Think back to the Good Shepherd. He loves his sheep and they love him in return. And the supreme act of love is to lay down his life for his sheep.
And so, with three strokes of his brush, John sets the scene for what is one of the most extraordinary stories in scripture, one of the most compelling and yet the most disturbing and unsettling. This passage should challenge us as no other, it should force us to reassess our faith, our discipleship, our very existence and being.
The incarnate Son of God, the King of kings and Lord of lords, the word who was with the Father when creation was breathed into existence, stoops down and washes the feet of his friends. He takes off his outer robe, wraps a towel around himself, kneels before them and washes the dirt and filth of the mucky Palestinian roads from their blistered and rough feet. I can just about accept the Lord of Glory dying on the cross for the sin of the world, but to kneel before me and wash my feet really challenges me.
St Paul describes it in Philippians 2 saying, “Christ Jesus was in the form of God, yet he did not cling to equality with God. He emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, and was born in our human likeness. And being found in human form he humbled himself, and became obedient, even to death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him, and bestowed on him the name above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” We should bow the knee before him, yet he kneels before us. We should be his slaves, yet he takes the position of a slave and calls us friends, brothers and sisters, children of God. This is what John means in the famous verse, 3:16, God so loved the world. This is love. This is want love looks like. And most crucially friends, this is how we are to love. Jesus said, “if I, your Lord and teacher, have washed your feet, you ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.”
We often talk about the love of God in quite abstract ways. Here we see what love is, what love does, and we are told to love one another in the same way. This is the hardest part of the gospel, because we are proud people. Yet if we call Jesus Lord, then we have no option.
When we begin to love like this, we discover it is an immense liberation. The more we give of ourselves, the more we spend and are spent, the more we find love shown to us and within us. The love of God wells up within us and spurs us on to love more. Instead of creating our own little kingdoms in which we reign supreme, we become part of the kingdom of God and find freedom in service, glory in shame, receiving in giving, life in death.
When we begin to live the way of love, suddenly all the paradoxes of our faith make sense. Even before his birth, the way of Jesus has been shown as turning the ways of the world on its head. It is only when we live the way of love that it all begins to fit together and make sense. Before Jesus was born Mary sang of God exalting the lowly and humbling the proud. In the upper room we see that song come to life. “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” I have shown you what love is. Go, and do likewise.